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Book Reviews

Santa Claus: A Biography

by Gerry Bowler

This Christmas, Santa won’t bring every child a pony or an MP3 player. But let the disappointed take comfort: at least he no longer brings vinegar-soaked birch rods to the unlucky or badly behaved.

Gerry Bowler’s history of the legendary gift-giver looks at Santa’s beginnings as a whip-wielding taskmaster and covers his slow metamorphosis into a good-natured figure of proletarian cheer and charity. Created by centuries of stories and lies, advertisements and interest groups, Santa’s significance has changed to fit changing times.

Taking the Santa Claus persona as an amalgam of social ideas, Bowler surveys how groups as diverse as movie makers, advocacy groups, wartime governments, psychologists, and hosts of holiday advertisers have co-opted or criticized the man in red over the years. The book will be a joy for dataphiles and nostalgia buffs. Ever wanted to know who sang “If Santa Claus Were My Daddy”? Now you can. Readers looking for a propulsive narrative may be less excited by the book. Chunks of cited literature and copious facts and lists frequently obscure Bowler’s overriding thesis, and despite plentiful Yuletide puns that lighten the read, the writing often gives the book the tone of a catalogue (or perhaps a Christmas miscellany).

The most engaging moments are those in which Bowler enters the theoretical fray. With an artillery of meticulous research, he breaks open the Coca-Cola myth (that the company gave Santa a revolutionary image makeover in the 1930s), questions the motives of early New Yorkers who ushered in a sentimental Christmas to replace the riotous party previously enjoyed, and issues a moving plea for the right to believe in the unseen. Bowler’s main concern here seems to be the future of suspended disbelief in an increasingly empirical (and secular) culture. The belief in Santa Claus – fabricated by generations of parents and held together through creative storytelling, quick wits, and some nibbled cookies on the hearth – is for many children the first encounter with pure belief. It is also, after some deep thinking about large men and narrow chimneys, the first belief to be proven patently untrue.


Reviewer: Caroline Skelton

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart


Price: $34.99

Page Count: 288 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-7710-1532-1

Released: Oct.

Issue Date: 2005-12

Categories: History